Problem Solving the Whole or the Pieces?

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 05-19-20

I’ve always considered Russell Ackoff one of the most persistent and insightful systems thinkers. While sometimes his ideas are elusive for organizations to grab ahold of (I don’t always agree with his conclusions), he expects better from organizations, and I think those ideas are worth delving into. As I prepare to do more of my own writing on problem solving, I’ve been reading a little more of his stuff, including this more recent article A Lifetime of Systems Thinking


Here is a nugget I’d like to share, and react to:


“[This] is wrong…Improving the performance of the parts of a system taken separately will necessarily improve the performance of the whole.” This is a fundamental view of virtually all systems thinkers. But, practically speaking, if this point is taken too far, then we can only be left with a couple people solving problems who grasp the whole. The first reason this is limiting is that most organizations do have too much to do. There are many failures that must be responded to. Many, of course, that we think need a response that don’t, but there still are many. But very few organizations can be successful without broader engagement and drive. The second reason, perhaps more important, is that no matter what we try, we can’t stop the organization from solving problems. Just stick people in the organization and they will act, whether it’s visible to you or not. So no matter how well you architect your system of work, people will act. So the real question is….how do we enable and empower broad problem solving while minimizing the risk of solving the parts inconsistent with the needs of the whole. 


I believe there are several countermeasures.



The more we develop transparency of what the problems are, who is working on it, how they are working on, and what solutions they are developing, then we reduce the risk of solving the pieces at counter-purposes of each other. Transparency avoids accidental failures that are born out of ignorance. Especially in this case, transparency can’t just be a system but also a behavior, meaning we strive to make problem solving visible for the purposes and inviting challenge, question (and hopefully) collaboration. 



Coaching is not just about problem solving, but also what problem to solve. Knowing, perhaps intuitively, whether a problem can be solved as a piece without failing the whole system, must be considered before diving in. Do we have to pull up and connect all the other elements, and if so, how wide a net do we cast? Ultimately, everything is connected. You could see human errors that created quality problems, and decide you want to reinvent K-12 education. That’s great, if you have the ability to engage that problem, but most people will not, and so you have to determine how far to connect your problem to the larger system. When you make your problem visible to your manager (who should ideally double as a coach), then you can explore with someone who has a wider aperture than you to broadly define the problem scope. 


Common lens, language, and principles 

I love soccer analogies for systems thinking, because the coach can’t reset the system every time you inbound or hike a ball. If you have 5 field players moving the ball in a system of possession, and 5 players playing kick and run, the system will fail massively. The more the group of players think the same way, driven by principles (not plays or scripts), then more they will act independently as part of a system. If you have guiding lean principles that drive how people see things, how they talk about them, and ultimately how they solve problems, then they can act independently as problem solvers but in a common direction towards a common end. 


More systems thinking 

Fundamentally, developing more systems thinking throughout the organization at all levels helps. It helps people resist acting blindly, see the whole, connect problems together, and act at the right point. We should be developing systems thinking at all levels of the organization. I would prefer we did it more in the K-12 and university levels, so that organizations weren’t burdened with this, and it became more a trait of being human. But, until that time, organizations should be tasked with cultivating (notice I didn’t say training) more systems thinking. 


None of these elements will solve the risk. The risk is real, and quite frankly, we will fail at it regularly. It is about balance, and improving the guide rails in our march forward.